by Tom Woodward, Director of Learning Spaces and Technologies

It’s said that familiarity breeds contempt. That’s particularly true in the world of technology and the Internet where “new” and “best” are functionally synonymous. Because I like to know where sayings come from, I spent some time exploring the origin of that phrase (familiarity breeds contempt). As with many sayings, the origin isn’t clear. 

Familiarity breeds contempt. How accurate that is. The reason we hold truth in such respect is because we have so little opportunity to get familiar with it.

-Mark Twain

I first checked out my favorite quote research site,  Quote Investigator. It had not been investigated. The variation referenced above was associated with Mark Twain as part of research on another quote but the attribution wasn’t obvious. Clearly it wasn’t the original, but it fits well with larger concerns related to the Internet and misinformation

For right as men seyn that `over-greet hoomlynesse engendreth dispreisynge,’

-Chaucer

Was it Chaucer? I found a variation in the Tale of Melibee from Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English with modern English translations thanks to Harvard. If that’s not enough, I can look at scans of an illuminated manuscript of Canterbury Tales from the late 14th century from the British Library or listen to portions read aloud with the proper accent. It turns out that when I was forced to memorize and recite the prologue in 1993, my Alabama-influenced Middle English pronunciation was less than accurate. 

“…familiarity breeds contempt, but privacy gains admiration.”

-Apuleius

Is Apuleius’s The Golden Ass the source? (I opted to use the more colorful title-clickbait!) I was able to find this book, published in 1853, because it had been scanned and made searchable by Google (but not without issues). I could also have perused any number of versions of The Golden Ass, in any number of digital formats thanks to The Internet Archive

In this world familiarity breeds contempt. For example, one who lives on the banks of the Ganges might travel to some other body of water to be purified.

-Vedavyasa

Maybe it was Vedavyasa (वेदव्यास) from the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam in chapter 84 of Canto 10. This was originally in Sanskrit and I’m not sure I’m even referencing it correctly. At this point, I am entirely out of my depth and I could easily lose hours to this exploration. 

To be clear, I don’t claim this as an answer or even a very serious exploration, but I hope it points to just how amazing the Internet is. I’ve taken a tour across centuries, across cultures, through all kinds of media, and benefitted from the labor of hundreds of individuals. And yet, it’s easy to overlook because we’ve become so familiar with this kind of access. The technology stories making headlines tend to be focused on the latest way to get-rich-quick or how social media is aggravating deep social issues. To help determine an interesting future for the Internet and technology in our lives it’s important to ground it in history and to take a deeper look at what we can do now. 

The Past

The attribution exploration I’ve attempted to sketch out above could be called an “associative trail,” enabled by a networked memex. Both of these terms were popularized by Vannevar Bush in “As We May Think” (1945). This early attempt to predict how technology could help humans improve cognition makes interesting predictions that can be associated with modern personal computers, hyperlinks, and broader ideas about information and access. 

I find looking back at what computing pioneers hoped technology would do interesting and informative. Seeing what people aspired to at the dawn of the computing era inspires me in ways that today’s yearning to make the ownership of ape cartoons through block chain profitable does not

While they’re far from perfect, you can feel the hope in the titles of some of these early works. 

Their goals were not hyper-specific ads based on gathering every bit of data that could be collected about you. They did not dream of algorithms driving “engagement” through outrage. They saw computers as protean environments full of information where people could make what they needed to achieve their own goals. They wanted to improve access to information, how people thought, and what they were able to create. 

Still others see computers for what they really are: versatile gizmos which may be turned to any purpose, in any style. And so a wealth of new styles and human purposes are being proposed and tried, each proponent propounding his own dream in his own very personal way.

-Ted Nelson

Much of the modern technology environment has been moving in the opposite direction. Twitter and Facebook are even more constrained than MySpace. Websites are being moved to apps where you have less control and flexibility. Monolithic corporations have bought the majority of tools we use on a daily basis. But all is not lost. 

What can you do now?

There’s a lot you can do now to help create an experience more aligned with the goals of the early technology pioneers. Not coincidentally, many more powerful options are tied to traditional technologies which reopen doors to control and customization.

Use a web browser instead of an app

Using a web browser allows you to have a lot more control over your experience.

  • You can install an ad blocker (like Privacy Badger) to increase your privacy. It has the benefit of making websites load faster.
  • Browser extensions created by people like Ben Grosser allow you to use popular websites like Twitter but in customized ways. His Twitter Demetricator removes the like counts and other metrics from your view. It’s interesting to see how changing UI elements like this changes your experience and behavior.
  • With a bit of effort you can customize any webpage through CSS. Browser extensions like Stylebot make this easy even if you don’t know CSS. 

Use an RSS reader instead of trusting an unknown algorithm

Prior to the rise of social network sites, RSS readers were the way people created streams of information from all around the Internet. Much of the content being posted to sites like Facebook and Twitter comes from webpages that have RSS feeds you can subscribe to with an RSS reader. The difference is you have the control. What you see isn’t being promoted or hidden based on algorithms you can’t see or understand.I use NetNewsWire on my Mac but also take note of the Vivaldi browser’s built-in RSS reader. Yale’s library does a good job explaining more about RSS

Get outside the monoliths 

It’s really easy to fall into using Google for your searches and Chrome/Edge/Safari as your web browser. These tools shape our behavior in so many different ways and impact what we find and do in ways that are hard to consider. A former member of the Chrome development team noted that they didn’t make changes to Chrome if those changes were likely to reduce searches (Google’s main revenue source). It’s easy to forget that these tools are being built to shape your behavior rather than to be the best product or to help you. 

Pry at the edges

All of this technology is made by regular people and various kinds of code. Every little bit you understand adds up to give you increased power and control. The Internet is a particularly nice place to learn about the things that make the Internet work. Speaking as a history major, anyone can learn this stuff given the time, interest, and a bit of stubbornness. If you have any interest in being able to shape the web, these three scripting languages are a great place to start. 

  • HTML is the basic foundation of the web. There are many basic HTML courses out there. I tend to like those that blend video, text, and interactive elements like this one by GCFGlobal
  • Cascading style sheets (CSS) enable a lot of the visual aspects on webpages. It’s a surprisingly powerful tool and it’s the technology that enables you to customize webpages via Stylebot. If you ever wanted a bigger button on a page, to change the colors on a site, or to hide a section of a page (like the Twitter sidebar), then this is what you want. 
  • Javascript is an increasingly popular and powerful language that can do everything from browser bookmarklets to servers. I find it particularly useful as it lets me customize and tweak Google’s online tools via Google App Script. 

Enjoy the good

There’s so much amazing content on the internet and so many places where people are helping one another. It’s worth remembering that. By participating in and promoting the good things, we can help build the kind of future we want.